CHRISTOPHER SHULTIS “Devisadero” = Openings – University of New Mexico Wind Symphony/ Eric Rombach-Kendall; Songs of Love and Longing – Leslie Umphrey, soprano/ Falko Steinbach, piano; “a little light, in great darkness” – Carrie Koffman, soprano saxophone/ New Mexico Winds; Devisadero – Falko Steinbach, piano – Navona Recordings NV5849, 53:07 (Distr. by Naxos) ****:
Navona never disappoints me in bringing in new music by unfamiliar composers (to me) to the forefront through excellent recordings! This new release of music by Christopher Shultis is no exception. Shultis is a professor of composition and percussionist at the University of New Mexico. Clearly all the pieces in this attractive set are inspired by the atmosphere and culture of his state and all of the present performers have connections to UNM and do a very fine job.
Shultis’ output is picturesque and tonal. There are elements of minimalism, a little impressionism; basically his writing will remind the listener of other things but it is all together easy to listen to, enjoyable and does not require deep analysis or a degree in theory to appreciate. An excellent case in point is his piano work, “Devisadero” Named after a well known scenic trail near Taos, this set of six preludes depicts several different impressions that the composer feels as he takes in the sensory aspects of the connection with nature. Shultis also provides some written observations, almost like a poem, to summarize the sights and sounds. Titles such as ‘Wind blowing’, ‘Fly buzzing, ant running’ and ‘bird chirping, rustling leaf’ imply the intent and are very reflective of the writing (and vice versa). Pianist Falko Steinbach plays with dedication and sensitivity.
The song cycle, “Songs of Love and Longing” presents a similar small intimate feel. This time, Shultis’ skill as a writer and tone painter of poetry comes through. The five songs within this very pretty set come from texts written by the composer during more walks he took during five different times and locales; such as ‘Rio Grande Gorge Trail – 10 October, 2001’ or the ‘Osha Loop Trail – 5 October, 2002’ reveal Shultis to be a man who is skilled at the written word and a lover of nature. In each case, the words are personal and a bit reminiscent of Thoreau, mainly for the communing with nature. The musical settings are interesting, taking advantage of key textual points, such as “ah, how fleeting … gone”. This is clearly a very heartfelt work and crafted very well to be accessible to both audience as well as the singer. In this case, Leslie Umphrey does a very nice job, accompanied sensitively by Falko Steinbach.
Shultis’ work for soprano saxophone with woodwind quintet, “a little night, in great darkness” is different from the other works represented here in that the tonal language is a little more abstract and the tone a little darker; perhaps in reflection of the nature of the poem upon which it reflects, again by the composer, and all of some symbolism between starkness in nature and starkness as a personal feeling or mood. Written for the present performers, Carrie Koffman’s soprano saxophone blends in well with the other winds; sounding almost like a second oboe in places and paired well with bassoon in other places. This piece actually makes a very welcome addition to the sextet repertory in which a woodwind quintet is joined by a saxophone and is a very interesting mysterious work!
Christopher Shultis’ “Openings”, which opens this set, is the largest and, in many ways, most traditional sounding work in this collection. In four movements, each a reflection of both trails in the Manzano wilderness as well as what the composer calls the “..way in which (we experience) music that includes not only what we hear but how and what we see and think and, especially, how we breathe.” I consider this a ‘traditional’ sounding work in that it has a very idiomatic wind ensemble feel to it and contains some distinctive minimalist sounding passages and makes great use of sectional highlighting including some nice percussion writing (the composer is, himself, a percussionist) The inclusion of the siren about three minutes in of the third movement is jolting but interesting. Each movement is attractive and very classical of the genre (especially the finale) I envision this work belonging in the growing camp of contemporary wind ensemble repertoire and receiving play from college and university ensembles across the southwest, at least! The UNM Wind Symphony under the direction of Eric Rombach-Kendall plays very precisely and with dedication to this music.
Kudos to Navona and PARMA, again, for providing new music performed quite professionally and, in this case, with a very helpful and artistically assembled program booklet. I am glad to get to hear Christopher Shultis’ music. He will, no doubt, remind listeners of a variety of other composers here and there, but the fact he is a skilled, clever and interesting composer and writer whose music is easy to listen to and bears wider exposure. I imagine this disc would appeal to fans of new music but especially those who want something tonal and can appreciate a connection to the beauty of nature; as Mr. Shultis clearly does.
— Daniel Coombs